Has Parity Turned into Disparity?
by Doug Belliveau
April 3, 2003

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Has parity been given the boot this year in Winston Cup?
Photo by CIA Stock Photo

As I watch the 2003 Winston Cup season unfold, I canít help but think there is an unmistakably common theme in most of the races. It appears to me that there is a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.

After coming to this unscientific conclusion in my head, I felt the need to pull out some statistics and prove my thesis before spouting off to anyone else. As they say, go with your first instinct, which showed that I wasnít imagining the disparity in Winston Cup racing. So letís look at some of the numbers.

The first obvious disparity is in the pointís standings. After week seven in 2002, first place Sterling Marlin was leading fifth place Mark Martin by 144 points. Skip forward to this year, and we find that Matt Kenseth is leading fifth place Jimmie Johnson by a 205-point margin. Okay, so that may not be an overly convincing tell-all stat, as it is only a difference of 61 points. Still, that is a 42% increase in point margin.

Letís look at the second disparity between the performance statistics from this year and last year. The number of DNFs (did not finish) in a race should give an indication that certain race teams may be struggling. Drivers do not finish races due to mechanical problems or accidents. For the first seven weeks of 2002, there were a total of 36 DNFs, or an average of 6 per race. In 2003, there have been 56 DNFs for an average of over 9 per race. That means that three additional cars are not finishing each race this year. In case youíre checking my math, I had to discount the Daytona race because it was significantly shortened by rain this year. So youíre still not convinced and you say there is too much statistical variation involved with DNFs to use that in an argument for disparity? Then perhaps we should look at one more statistic that helps confirm my theory.

It seems to be common sense that the number of cars ending the race on the lead lap is a good indication of the level of competition. If more drivers finish on the lead lap, it could be logically concluded that parity was achieved. But as more back marker teams fall behind during a race, there is more disparity in the field, showing a more varied degree of competition. The latter of those two conditions seems to be the norm this season. Through week 7 of 2002, there were an average of 16 cars ending the race on the lead lap. In 2003, there has been an average of only 10 cars on the lead lap. That means that six additional cars are falling at least a lap down as compared to last year. That is a substantial number in the argument for disparity.

Maybe one or even two of these stats would not conclusively convince someone that there is a higher level of disparity in Winston Cup this year. I think the three stats combined leave no doubt regarding the presence of disparity. The question is, will it continue?

Dale Jarrett felt the bite at Bristol earlier this year.
Photo by Wieck

You could spend weeks debating why this disparity exists now. There are several theories, from lack of sponsorship money to bad weather to shuffled crews to a lack of a bumper crop of rookies in 2003. The fact is, NASCAR spent a lot of effort during the off-season to bring the common template into effect for 2003. This was for the sole purpose of projecting parity onto the playing field. So far this year this hasnít seemed to be the case. However, the season is only 20% complete and there are 29 remaining contests to be held. It is entirely possible that we are currently in some form of statistical ďtwilight zoneĒ anomaly, and that the numbers will right themselves by seasonís end. Then again, the disparity statistics could extrapolate through the remainder of the year and we could end up with all kinds of ugly results, but if I wanted to see that I could just become a fan of F-1 or CART. Letís hope for everyoneís sake that the 2003 season swings back towards that goal of parity.

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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